The Portable Stack – Is there a place for the EeePC?

5 05 2009

Recently I was successfully marketed to by Woot.com and aquired an Asus EeePC 900 Linux netbook. For those who are not familiar with these puppies, they’re hyper-small fully functional ‘laptop’ computers, scaled down to be the size of a hardcover book. The Netbook article on Wikipedia is a good summary of these devices.

The Asus EeePC 900 is an ‘older’ version (hence the reason I got it for only $149) with 512meg of RAM and a 4 gig SSD drive. It has all the basic features you’d expect for a laptop – wifi, decent screen, touchpad, USB ports, good battery life (about 3.5 hours), etc. In all respects, it should be a geeks dream. A fully functional Linux box that is only a few pounds, and can run for hours.

So why am I considering handing it off to my son?

The main problem is that in the current portable computing environment, the ‘slot’ that Netbooks like the EeePC can fill is narrowing rapidly. On the ‘full laptop’ side, there’s a trend toward longer battery life, lighter designs, and stuffing all the functionality of a full desktop machine into a portable form. Many people don’t even have desktop machines anymore, they use their laptops for all work (that’s my situation). On the other side we have the emergency of smartphones like the iPhone (which I have). The iPhone is an enormously capable device. I can read my email, chat online, browse the web, play games – all the things I’d likely do on my laptop if it were small and light – the space that the EeePC and others are shooting for.

Even in the face of all this, I really did give the EeePC a try. I carried it around for a week, trying to see where I’d use it and where I wouldn’t. I never ‘clicked’ into it in any particular fashion, due to a number of obstacles that were either filled by my iPhone or by my laptop:

  • Very small keyboard
    The EeePC has a very small and somewhat wobbly keyboard. I have quite large hands, and though I could ‘shrink’ my hands down to type away, it took some serious concentration, and really only worked when the EeePC was flat on a desk and I was sitting in a proper chair. If I were in that situation, I’d just use my laptop.

  • Wireless twitchy
    This is probably a fault of the Linux distribution the EeePC uses, but I had all sorts of problems with the machine waking up and not reassociating with any available wifi (it wouldn’t even show networks available).

  • No LEAP support
    The wireless also could not use LEAP authentication on wireless. This meant I could not use the EeePC anywhere at the office. Total loss there – I was hoping to be able to bring the machine with me to meetings so I didn’t have to undock and haul my normal laptop along.

  • Update failures from Asus
    ASUS has broken their updater. The EeePC will not software update properly from ASUS’s servers. This is a real problem. There are workarounds, naturally, but it likely means there won’t be OS updates from the manufacturer anytime soon. The answer seems to be to use Eeebuntu, a version of Ubuntu linux designed specifically for the EeePC netbooks.

  • Touchpad
    I don’t like the touchpad. I don’t know why – I just can’t get comfortable with it. The two-finger scrolling is cumbersome and prone to ‘pausing’ (this compared to the two-fingered scrolling on a macbook, which is smooth as silk).

  • Yet Another Power Supply
    I have a problem with power supplies. If I’m going to carry another laptop, I have to have another power supply with me. So now I have 2 laptops, 2 power supplies. This is not saving me anything in weight in my backpack.

Given all these issues, I find myself either picking up my iPhone to twitter or check something on wikipedia, or get out my laptop if I’m going to do any real work.

So what to do? The current plan is to reload the EeePC with Eeebuntu and evaluate that. If it’s stable, is able to browse youtube, run Python’s IDLE environment, and play nethack, then it will be a perfect upgrade for my son, as he’s outgrowing his XO laptop.

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